It had only limited distribution with no public display, and thus was little known. It was rediscovered in 2000, has been re-issued by a number of private companies, and has been used as the decorative theme for a range of products. It was believed there were only two known surviving examples of the poster outside government archives until a collection of 20 originals was brought in to the Antiques Roadshow in 2012 by the daughter of an ex-Royal Observer Corps member.
The original 1939 Keep Calm and Carry On poster
“Freedom Is In Peril” and “Your Courage”
The poster was initially produced by the Ministry of Information, at the beginning of the Second World War. It was intended to be distributed in order to strengthen morale in the event of a wartime disaster, such as mass bombing of major cities using high explosives and poison gas, which was widely expected within hours of an outbreak of war. Over 2,500,000 copies were printed, although the poster was distributed only in limited numbers, and never saw public display. Bristol photographer Reece Winstone’s book of wartime photographs of the city shows the poster in large form on a billboard.
The poster was third in a series of three. The previous two posters from the series, “Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might” and “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” were issued and used across Britain for motivational purposes, as the Ministry of Information assumed that the events of the first weeks of the war would demoralise the population.
Planning for the posters started in April 1939; by June designs were prepared, and by August 1939, production had begun, and the posters were ready to be placed up within 24 hours of the outbreak of war. The posters were intended to be associated with the Ministry of Information, and to incorporate a unique and recognisable lettering and design, with a message from the King to his people. An icon of a “Tudor” crown (a widely used symbol of government authority) was chosen to head the poster, rather than a photograph.
The slogans were created by civil servants, with a career civil servant named Waterfield coming up with “Your Courage” as “a rallying war-cry that will bring out the best in everyone of us and put us in an offensive mood at once”. These particular posters were designed as “a statement of the duty of the individual citizen”, un-pictorial, to be accompanied by more colloquial designs. The “Your Courage” poster was much more famous during the war, as it was the first of the Ministry of Information’s posters.
However, although the campaign was prompt, and although 800,000 of the “Freedom Is In Peril” and “Your Courage” posters were distributed, many people claimed not to have seen them; while those who did see them regarded them as patronising and divisive.
Design historian Susannah Walker regards the campaign as “a resounding failure”, and reflective of a misjudgement by upper-class civil servants of the mood of the people.
Later in the war, a leaflet was distributed with a message from Prime Minister Winston Churchill headed “Beating the Invader”. It begins “If invasion comes…” and goes on to exhort the populace to “Stand Firm” and “Carry On”. The two phrases do not appear in one sentence, but are picked out in an emphatic font. The text identifies them as the two “great order(s) and dut(ies)” to and for the people, should invasion come. The leaflet then lists a number of practical measures to be taken.
In 2000, Stuart Manley, co-owner with his wife Mary of Barter Books Ltd. in Alnwick, Northumberland, was sorting through a box of used books bought at auction when he uncovered one of the original “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters. The couple framed it and hung it up by the cash register; and it attracted so much interest that Manley began to produce and sell copies. Other companies followed suit, and the design rapidly began to be used as the theme for a wide range of products. Mary Manley later commented, “I didn’t want it trivialized. But of course now it’s been trivialized beyond belief.”
In early 2012, Barter Books debuted an informational short, The Story of Keep Calm and Carry On, providing visual insight into the modernization and commercialization of the design and the phrase.
Susannah Walker comments that the poster is now seen “not only as a distillation of a crucial moment in Britishness, but also as an inspiring message from the past to the present in a time of crisis”.
She goes on to point out, however, that such an interpretation overlooks the circumstances of its production, and the relative failure of the campaign of which it formed a part.
“Playing for Change started about ten years ago. I started traveling around the world recording and filming musicians with the Stand By Me video. That started when I first met Roger Ridley, a street performer here in Los Angeles — in Santa Monica. And I heard him singing Stand By Me and just thought it would an incredible song to take around the world. And, since then, it’s turned into a movement, you know, of people coming together through music. We record and film musicians around the world (and) we build music schools. We have eight of those as part of the Playing For Change Foundation. And then we also have the Playing For Change band which is the tangible example of the whole project. What happens when ten countries meet on the stage and build something bigger than themselves which is really the idea of the project. There’s about 160 million views of our songs around the world. It started with Stand By Me about five years ago and that one got over 50 million (views).It’s been many years of building a family around the world of musicians and their communities and then using all these musicians — whether they’re famous, like Bono or Keith Richards are involved in the songs, or whether they’re street musicians or when you travel you find a lot of people are more what I would call native musicians. They play in villages, in Indian reservations, in the Himalayan mountains and so on. It’s not just (songs) you hear on the radio or buy in the store. Great music is everywhere. That’s why I mentioned Roger Ridley. Because when you hear him, he has a voice like Otis Redding, one of the best singers of all time. And you say to this guy “Why were your singing on the street with a voice like that?” And he says “Because, man, I’m in the joy business! I come out to bring joy to the people!”
And so that’s really kind of the origin of the whole project.”